I once watched a man try to defend himself in court. He wasn’t a lawyer. In fact, he wasn’t very bright at all — which explains why he thought it was a good idea to represent himself. Cornell University conducted a research project last year and found that some people are so stupid they don’t even know they are stupid. The judge was forced to talk to the defendant like the man was a 6th grader. Reporters found it entertaining in a tragi-comic sort of way.
I was reminded of this episode as I watched a 10 minute video of a congressional hearing from November last year. It was the Science and Technology Committee hearing on global warming. One of the chief witnesses was Dr. Richard Alley, the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State, and leading paleo-climate scientist in the world. He thinks, based on his research of ice-core data, among other things, that human-caused global warming is real.
Representing himself, the United States and the people of the 46th district of California was Dana Rohrabacher. He is a politician and has never studied ice-core data. Nevertheless, he thinks human-caused global warming is a joke.
It was Rohrabacher who brought to mind that guy who thought he was smart enough to tangle with a trained prosecutor. The defendant had watched a lot of Perry Mason, and that gave him certainty. I recognized that Rep. Rohrabacher had read a bunch of material from fossil-fuel funded think tanks. As they say, he was bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Thus armed, the congressman puffed himself up and used some scientific sounding words. He fools no one. He has no idea what he’s talking about. You can see the video by clicking here.
Rohrabacher begins by asking Dr. Alley if all this warming we are seeing isn’t explainable as a natural cycle, pointing out to the man who knows more about the earth’s natural climate cycles than anyone else on the planet that the earth has gone through many natural climate cycles. I know Dr. Alley was grateful for the tutorial.
Rohrabacher’s question, pompous and officious, insults the intelligence. There is a principle in science called “Occam’s Razor.” I’ll spare you the details on how it got its name, but it means that the simplest explanation for a problem is often the right explanation. Therefore, all scientists, when undertaking a problem, look at the simplest solution first.
That means, in the case of global warming, one would look at natural cycles. So, that’s what Dr. Alley and hundreds of other scientists did. No natural cycle can explain what’s happening to our climate today. Not the sun. Not volcanoes. Not the eccentricities of Earth’s orbit.
In effect, Rohrabacher was asking the homicide detective whether he ever considered the killer might have been the victim’s spouse. The detective would have said, “Yes we did, and the spouse was in another country.” What the detective was thinking was: “Look you numbskull, the spouse if the first person we always look at!”
Dr. Alley didn’t call Rep. Rohrabacher a numbskull. He did something far more delicious. In front of the rest of the committee members and anyone watching CSPAN, this delightful little scientist gave the congressman a lesson in Earth orbit, wobble and tilt. Except it was a lesson designed for a child. He explained why there are natural cycles. He did it all with his hands and face, pointing to his bald spot as one of Earth’s poles. It seemed, at one point, Dr. Alley was about to do the itsy-bitsy spider for the congressman.
I’ve watched the video of the hearing a dozen times. Initially I found it charming and funny, and now when I watch it I feel frustration and anger. Rohrabacher is charged with making public policy to deal with what has been called the greatest crisis ever to face mankind, and he hasn’t a clue about the science. His political beliefs can’t square with the science, so he must make the established science wrong, and it is clear that the congressman wouldn’t be able to tell a molecule from a mattress.
A Minnesota state senator told me that he would give global warming serious attention when the science gets to 50-50. Several separate studies now show more than 97 percent of all published scientists working on global warming agree that increased CO2 from fossil fuels is the primary cause. I told him that the U.S. Department of Defense believes the science, the CIA believes it, and both are already gaming the next set of world conflicts based on the effects of global warming.
I asked the senator if 100 mechanics inspected the airplane he and his family intended to fly to New York and 97 of them said the plane would crash, would he put his family on the plane? His answer was silence. Last check, he still thinks global warming is a farce. Ready for takeoff.
I don’t know any other way of saying this, but politicians shouldn’t be allowed around questions of science. This stuff is too serious to leave in the hands of people beholden to high-roller donors who are worried they will lose profits if the government acts decisively on established science.
An Australian physicist named John Cook runs a website called skepticalscience.com, and he’s put together some embarrassingly uninformed quotes on global warming science he’s collected from U.S. politicians. Right now he has 30 public officials featured; four of them are from Minnesota, and one is a democrat. You can see the quotes here.
There is no question that lawmakers have a vital role to play in developing public policy grounded in fact and wisdom. But the laws of physics stand immutable against the weaker laws of politics. I can’t help but believe that the country is filled with politicians who would vote to repeal the laws of gravity, if gravity was an impediment to favored campaign contributors. “Well, sir — if gravity is getting in the way of you making a lot of money, and giving me some of it, why, we’ll just outlaw it.”
Back to the guy who thought he was smart enough to act as his own lawyer. He was found guilty on all charges. He apologized to the judge for the fiasco and said, “I guess I’m not as smart as I thought I was.” Politicians never have to make that admission to the scientists they call to testify. The scientists, unfortunately, have to assume that’s going in.